Piling up strikeouts on the mound and pounding extra-base hits to the outfield alleys are a couple of ways to win a baseball game.
Free State High did neither Thursday, but its less-than-brute style still proved overbearing in a 6-1 home victory over Shawnee Mission North.
Starting pitcher Jacob Caldwell allowed just one hit in six innings of astute throwing, while the Firebirds set a season high for runs, even though all nine of their hits were singles.
Some bands of afternoon rain momentarily placed the game in limbo, but FSHS and coach Mike Hill couldn’t have been more thrilled to get it in.
“I thought the kids were great today,” Hill said, “particularly Jacob on the mound.”
A shrewd approach made Caldwell unhittable through five innings. In fact, the junior was perfect against the Indians’ first 15 hitters, a stretch in which he recorded just two of his four strikeouts but continually forced SMN hitters to pop the ball into the gray sky or hit slow rollers through the wet infield.
Two days after seeing FSHS senior hurler JD Prochaska dominate on the mound by fanning 12 batters, Hill was intrigued by watching Caldwell subdue opponents with a different style.
“He controls the game, but he controls it with ground balls and pop-ups and keeping people off-balance,” the coach said. “He pitched, and it was a great statement about how to pitch.”
The crafty slinger’s first mistake came in the top of the sixth, when Caldwell hit Brock Burrows, giving SMN (1-10) its first base runner of the game.
Free State’s starter followed that blip by striking out Joel Steelman and getting Ryan Theis to ground the ball to second base. However, Burrows beat the force at second base and both he and Theis advanced to scoring position on an error on the ensuing throw to first.
Indians leadoff hitter Matthew Maynard then broke up the no-hitter and shutout with an RBI single.
But Caldwell retired the next two batters to complete his six-inning show.
“Anytime I started to struggle,” Caldwell said, “I just tried to slow it down and take it easy. And my defense was amazing behind me.”
Firebirds third baseman Cameron Pope and shortstop Anthony Miele both showed off their throwing arms on the left side of the infield, and the defensive highlight of the game came in the fifth, when second baseman Ryan Cantrell perfectly tracked a blooper into center field and made a diving snag to keep Caldwell’s perfect game intact.
Offensively, freshman left fielder Joel Spain was the only Firebird with multiple hits (three singles), but a hit apiece from sophomores Joe Dineen and Pope, juniors Lee McMahon and Miele and seniors Montana Samuels and Prochaska were enough to make a difference for Free State (3-6).
Pope drove in the first run of the game in the second, and McMahon scored after an errant pickoff attempt by SMN starting pitcher Tucker Bartlett.
McMahon drove in a run to make it 3-0 in the third before Dineen, Samuels and Prochaska delivered consecutive RBI singles in the fourth.
Prochaska said FSHS, which began the season 0-5, is settling in offensively of late.
“The first couple of games we were kind of tense at the plate,” the senior said. “We’ve calmed down.”
With wins in three of their last four games, the Firebirds had only totaled two runs in both of their previous victories. Caldwell said the five-run cushion was a nice change.
“We’ve been trying very hard in practice to get the bats going,” the pitcher said. “They finally started to work today, and we strung some hits together and got some runs.”
While Hill said defense remains the team’s strength, he thinks some offensive progress is slowly being made.
“That’s the area where we have a lot of room for improvement,” Hill said, “and there’s still a lot of things we need to do better.”
At 5:30 p.m. Monday, FSHS plays at Leavenworth.